Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lambda is your friend

I've been doing this IT thing for a while now; and I'm about to make a major transition. January 2006 I transitioned from the master ninja Unix sysadmin to the newbie Java developer. It wasn't an easy transition, but I made it. I had a lot of help, mainly from the tech lead on our project, a great guy and excellent developer. But after two and a half years, I'm tired of the Java developer world. It's not so much that I find it hard (it's not), but it's just that it's not where my passion lies. I still have trouble articulating this idea, but I prefer Getting Stuff Done (TM). It's not that I don't respect Java developers (well, I don't respect a lot of them, but that's the nature of anything with huge market share), it's just not a field I find myself passionate about.

So I'm going to a new job soon, returning to the life of Getting Stuff Done (TM). I'm very excited about it.

I think the whole Getting Stuff Done (TM) approach is why I love Perl so much. I use Java at work: it's what I'm paid to do. But when I have a problem that needs to be solved on my own systems, I use Perl. I can solve the problem in Perl in the same time it takes me to write all the boilerplate code in Java.

It's not that Java's bad, it's just that Java isn't good at Getting Stuff Done (TM). I realized in the last 12 months that all Java projects eventually grow into large frameworks. The word "framework" describes Java like "regex" describes Perl or "list" describes Lisp or "pointer" describes C. Java is plagued by thousands of huge frameworks that get stacked on each other, each containing hundreds of classes or interfaces, none actually Getting Stuff Done (TM).

When I tell people I know Java, they want to know which frameworks I use: no one really programs Java, they program collections of frameworks. Our stack involves Hibernate and Spring, so potential employers get excited about that: I guess the Hibernate + Spring stack is a popular one.

Don't get me wrong: I've seen good Java code, and I've written both good and bad Java code; some of it even does the job fairly efficiently. But it's a language that lends itself to Yet Another Framework, rather than a language that lends itself to Getting Stuff Done (TM).

Perl lends itself to Getting Stuff Done (TM).

That's not to say Perl doesn't have its own problems. Much like the Java culture has evolved to produce zillions of frameworks, none of which actually form a complete application; Perl's culture has evolved to produce billions of lines of unreadable code that only the Perl parser has any hope of understanding. And as one friend pointed out: people write bad Perl because they can. So far, the Perl community has been more impressed by obfuscated code than appalled: so Perl newbies learn terrible habits that any other language's community would quickly humiliate them out of.

But Perl's no mean language: it's actually possible to write very elegant and efficient code in Perl; it's just not emphasized by the Perl community like it is in most other communities. Dominus' Higher-Order Perl is a great example of someone looking past "quick and dirty" to "incredible potential". I hope to see many more books like it.

But after writing a lot of code in projects from simple short scripts, to various Java applications, to C plugins, to fairly monstrous Perl and Python programs; I've settled on what I think is my favourite language: Scheme. I've been using Gambit for a while now, and I'm finding it's a very simple, clean, elegant language. But best of all, it's a great language for just getting out of your way and letting you get the job done.

To be sure, I've used a lot of the Gambit extensions, so I'm not at all programming in "pure Scheme"; but the extensions I've been using are also included in most of the Schemes I've seen out there, so I think my code is fairly portable, if not actually standards-compliant.

Gambit also supports hygienic (define-syntax) and non-hygienic (define-macro) macros. That's a huge deal.

But after mucking with Scheme for the past four or five weeks in my spare time; I'm finally seeing the truth in what a lot of old Lispers used to say: the simple syntax (or lack thereof) lets you see the code, not just the syntax. And it's amazing how easy it is to make things happen in Scheme, although it takes a very different mindset from standard Algol derivatives.

Funny thing is, I started trying to learn Lisp maybe five years ago now. But I kept seeing it in little pieces: seeing how cool any one feature is, but never able to combine them all into a working piece of usefulness. But like others have said, with some practice, it suddenly clicked, and I'm writing genuinely working code.

It's all very cool.

I still find Common Lisp a strange entity: it puts all the power in the known universe at your fingertips, but I find it hard to get things done in it. That seems weird when I'm extolling the virtues of Scheme (they are very close cousins, after all); but I still find solutions tend to flow from my fingers in Scheme. In CL I find myself thinking around problems too frequently.

Part of that is CL's insane number of options: accessing a file system in Common Lisp is not a simple task. And that complexity bleeds into my code too. Perhaps my problem is that the Scheme implementations I've tried are better implementations than the CL implementations I've worked with.

But I'm not trying to fan the flames of the infighting between Schemers and Lispers here: I'm just happy to have found a great language to work in.


Stace' said...

You know, you always tend to articulate what I've been thinking so much better than I could.

Ames said...

Ooooohhh, sassy. That's one of the things I love about Stace'.

Michelle said...

I can picture the infighting, too...cloak and dagger stuff, lurking in shadows, never really sure of who you can trust. Nasty stuff.

Shan said...

Here's what your post looks like to me.

"I can solve the problem in Perl in the same time it takes me to...

{Insert Charlie Brown's teacher's phone voice here}

...I'm just happy to have found a great language to work in."

ME: (brightly) Then I'm happy too!!
>>wanders off to go put head in a bucket<<

KingJaymz said...

Common Lisp? Ith that what you Canadianth hath? (Insert pity laugh)

I actually gave it my best shot to understand what you said. Maybe my comment should contain words like "lautertun" "decoction mash" and "sparging." Then we could both nod, grunt and have another sip off our beers.